It is a machine that can read your mind and predict your behaviour. A device that measures brain activity to extract information, buried somewhere in the subconscious, that even you may not be aware of. One that can make an accurate forecast whether a person will recover from coma. And detect unusually small lesions in the brain.
It is the 3 Tesla (3T) MRI scanner, the next generation of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines — introduced in hospitals in the US, Japan and some European countries two years ago. Last month, Jaslok Hospital acquired it.
The scanning device, the first of its kind in the country and only the second in Asia, produces images that are almost four to eight times sharper than the earlier generation 1.5 T MRI.
The 3T is also almost two times faster than the earlier machine in mapping areas, which automatically decreases the duration of the scan—a small consolation for those who suffer claustrophobia in the MRI tunnel. Already, over 500 patients have undergone scans on the new machine at no extra cost than before.
To be used for clinical and research purposes at the hospital, the new machine dramatically increases diagnostic ability, which could have a significant impact on the course of treatment. For example, this scanner picks up tiny lesions in the brain that the earlier machine would most probably have missed. “If the doctor sees 12 lesions instead of eight,” explains Dr Shrinivas B Desai, director, imaging and interventional radiology, at Jaslok, “the treatment would change significantly.” The 3T can map every single nerve fibre in the body and even has different colour codes for different sets of nerves.
“It is particularly helpful in mapping the central nervous system and may lead to many breakthroughs in research,” says Desai. “Currently, we know less than 10 per cent of the brain and why and how it functions the way it does. This machine may just help us in solving some mysteries.”
Researchers abroad have already begun to use the 3T to demystify brain activity. Last year, two groups of researchers – one in Japan and another in London – measured activity with the 3T in the visual cortex (the part of the brain that deals with information sent by the eyes) while volunteers looked at different test objects on a computer.
By studying the functional MRI scan results the scientists were able to guess what had been shown on the computer screen better than the volunteers themselves, as reported in Nature Neuroscience.
When two images were flashed in quick succession, the volunteers only consciously saw the second image and were unable to make out the first. But the brain scans clearly distinguished the patterns of brain activity created by the ‘hidden’ images. Similar results were obtained in the study conducted by the Japanese researchers.
While the 3T MRI at Jaslok will be used primarily for functional purposes, Desai says it will also be used for an ongoing study to map changes in the brain of patients with liver dysfunction.
“We’re also planning a study on breast and prostate cancers,” he says. However, not everyone understands what the fuss is all about. “It is definitely the next generation MRI machine,” says Dr Makrand Kulkarni, a radiologist at Lilavati Hospital. “But I’m not sure if it’s such a dramatic improvement on the 1.5 T.”
Nevertheless, the machine is already doing brisk business in Jaslok Hospital.